The gifts have been unwrapped. The contents of the stockings littered across the living room. Books and toys and sweaters strewn about, and the wrapping paper has created a scene akin to some great battle from some great war long ago.
In our family, we have a tradition that we open one present at a time, and this is to ensure that we take our time, extending the anticipation and excitement of giving and receiving gifts. It’s also so that we do not have a Christmas tree with waist-high, shredded wrapping paper around us by the end of it all!
This year, though, was different. I guess that only makes sense; with my one-year-old nephew, and our five-month-old son, Christmas doesn’t look at all like it used to. And despite unwrapping gifts mostly one at a time, we still ended up with the carnage of gift bags and paper a mile wide and a mile deep on my parents family room floor.
But it is so worth it, isn’t it, to see the joy and excitement on the faces of our loved ones as they open gifts carefully chosen, meticulously picked for them? I confess, I like receiving gifts- c’mon, I’m human!- but, and this is by no means meant as a “humble brag,” I love giving gifts. I love the sneaking around, hiding gifts in the backs of closets, planning how to present them, saving the most meaningful ones for last, of course. My brother, sister, and I always compete to see who can make our parents cry. I’ve got a pretty good track record.We give gifts at this time of year, in part, as a way to remember the
We give gifts at this time of year, in part, as a way to remember the gifts of the Magi to Jesus on Epiphany, which we just celebrated on Friday, and whose journey we sang about in our first hymn this morning. “The magi came to be identified as kings, probably due to an association of this passage with Isaiah 60:3” (Powell). The prophet said, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” Traditions established “in the Middle Ages [by] the Western Church decided there were three magi (the Eastern church has twelve) and [even] assigned them names: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar” (Powell). The number three was probably selected because of the number of gifts listed. Really, there is no scriptural basis for this number or that any of them were named, and really, it isn’t of the utmost importance. “Such legends are not insignificant for Christian piety, but they may distract us from the story Matthew tells” (Powell).One of the major themes present in Matthew’s Gospel, “is that God
One of the major themes present in Matthew’s Gospel, “is that God does not reveal things to ‘the wise and intelligent’ (11:25). Such withholding of revelation… is actually evident in this text, but only with regard to the chief priests and scribes, the true ‘wise men’ in the story” (Powell). So if we, rightly, resist the temptation to label these magi as “kings,” which they were not, and they are not the “wise men” in the story, who are they?“In Matthew’s narrative, kings are contrasted with servants
“In Matthew’s narrative, kings are contrasted with servants (20:25-28) [But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you, but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave] and wise men are contrasted with infants (11:25) [At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants]. The magi in Matthew 2 are depicted as persons who do as they are instructed, who seek no honor for themselves, and who gladly humble themselves, kneeling even before a woman and a child. Clearly, they fit the image of servants better than that of kings…” (Powell).
The gifts the magi bring, “proclaim the ‘good news of great joy for all the people’… God reaches beyond shepherds at the bottom of the barrel to Wise Ones at the top. God reaches beyond people scared witless by God’s glory to those who observe the glorious star at its rising, and methodically, persistently, and sincerely follow it to a king” (Satterlee). A central question that forms from this story is, “whom does God favor? Not kings or wise men, but the magi who embody qualities that this Gospel will declare antithetical to the traits of the royal and the wise” (Powell).
We are challenged this morning by the magi, not only to rethink how Christ’s birth has turned the established order of things on its head, but also what our role as people, called to follow a star, will be. There is a certain amount of danger in reading this story and idealizing the gifts the magi bring. Gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh were all traditional and valuable gifts brought to honor a newborn king or deity in the ancient world. The problem is, we can read about these gifts and think, ‘well, I don’t have anything near as good as that!’ The first line of the hymn, “In the Bleak Midwinter” can echo in our heads as a refrain of despair: “What can I give him, poor as I am?” Of course, if we are truly humble, we admit that there is nothing we can bring that is worthy of the Lamb of God.
However, the good news of Epiphany is that God desires nothing more than what we already have: our hearts, as the hymn famously ends.
But what does that really mean?
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul discusses the Spiritual Gifts of the members of the body of Christ. He describes gifts of teaching, prophecy, leadership, and tongues; healing, interpretation, and faith. Every member of the body is uniquely gifted. That means you, Irene! And you, Bill! And you, Amie! And you, James! And all of us who are gathered here together every Sunday morning! Each of us has gifts uniquely suited to ministry in God’s kingdom.
Over the past couple of weeks, the Nominating Committee, led fearlessly by Elaine H., has been approaching many of you about serving the church on this team or that. From property and finance, to worship and mission, we have many opportunities to serve.
Now, I am beginning to suspect that, each year, when the Nominating Committee is about its work, there is a lot of arm twisting, maybe a little guilting, and perhaps even some grumbling (though I am sure no one here would do any of that!). In many churches, it has become a struggle to get enough bodies onto teams, committees, and task forces. And I get it! We are busy people. Especially after an incredibly busy holiday season, the thought of putting one.more.thing on the plate is enough to make you want to lock the doors, turn off the lights, and hide under the bed! I get it!
Churches like ours require a lot of work. We do a lot! We are involved in a lot! This is a good problem to have! There are many churches out there that are dying, barely hanging on. That is not us… yet.
There are a couple of problems that all churches face, and ours is not immune.First, the majority of the work of a church is done by a small percentage of the people. Typically, the number is about 10 to 20 percent. Now, I have been pleased to see that Western Presbyterian Church does not seem to follow this pattern quite as much, with participation in activities and teams being of a higher percentage.
But it isn’t 100 percent. Now, this isn’t meant as a chastisement by any means. Please don’t hear this as a scolding! That is not my intention, and I would hate for that to be the takeaway here! Rather, the second problem that all churches face is actually a major contributor to the first problem.
It is the fact that most people in church either do not know what their gifts are, or are not using them in ways that are energizing and empowering. It wasn’t until I was out of college that I first began looking at Spiritual Gifts with any real seriousness. Once I did, I was able to see that there were specific ways I could use my gifts that would be both inspiring and energizing for me personally, and also contribute to the life and growth of the larger body of faith.
See, one of the big problems in churches (and really in many organizations) is that we try doing things, or participating in groups or committees, that are not going to let us exercise our true Spiritual Gifts. For example, let’s say we have someone who is really good at working with their hands; someone who has a passion and a natural talent for fixing things and making things, but they are pretty introverted, preferring not to speak much in front of large groups. The perfect place for that person would be as the Junior High Sunday School teacher, right? Of course, that is ridiculous, but really that is how churches have been operating. We put people into positions they are not gifted for, and that leads to a quicker burnout.
So where do we go from here? We’ve laid out the problems pretty well; what’s the solution? Well, there are a couple of things. First, you know what you are gifted for better than anyone else. What are you passionate about? What energizes you? What gets you excited? Second, what ministry is our church engaged in that can best utilize those gifts?Now perhaps you’re sitting there thinking, well, I think I have an idea
Now perhaps you’re sitting there thinking, well, I think I have an idea of what my gifts are, but I’m not really sure… starting in two weeks, I will be offering an adult ed study on the Spiritual Gifts before church at 9 am. We will talk about what the Spiritual Gifts are, and work at discerning in what ways we may be gifted. If you are interested, there is a sign-up sheet on the bulletin board outside the office.
As we continue to walk in this new year, following the star to the Christ child, “Isaiah reminds the community of its call to be a light to the nations” (Powell). What better way than to offer up our gifts, indeed our whole selves, to the glory of God? This morning, we are encouraged to humbly admit “that God’s glory may be manifested where we least expect it. Sometimes God’s people become a light for others (Isa. 60:3; Eph. 3:10); sometimes they appear blind to the light others can see,” like Herod and his advisors. “But always, the light is there, as God graciously, mysteriously, and defiantly breaks into human lives” (Powell).
So… what gifts do you bring this morning? Are they being put to their best, full use? Or is there more to come? Amen.
“Commented Bible Passages.” Taizé. Taizé, Jan. 2012. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.
Powell, Mark Allan. “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12.” Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL). Luther Seminary, 06 Jan. 2008. Web. 6 Jan. 2017.
Satterlee, Craig A. “Commentary on Matthew 2:1-12.” Working Preacher – Preaching This Week (RCL). Luther Seminary, 06 Jan. 2013. Web. 06 Jan. 2017.